There are certain shows we are proud to like: “Don’t you just love Downton Abbey? I do, Aren’t we just soooo sophisticated!?” And others where our interest makes us a bit uncomfortable: “Did you see the recent Bachlorette? I did. I just enjoy watching other people make horrible mistakes with their lives…” The critically acclaimed AMC drama Breaking Bad walks this line by simultaneously being the hippest show to discuss (with a side of glowing Terry Gross interviews) while at the same time, being something we hesitate before recommending to friends for fear of what they may assume happens in our own basements. What else should we expect from a show about a high-school chemistry teacher named Walt who, in response to a lung cancer diagnosis, begins producing and selling methamphetamine along with a former dropout student?
Like the most interesting crime dramas of the last 10 years (The Sopranos and The Wire as key examples of our golden age of television), Breaking Bad flips our typical calculus of right and wrong. There is something unsettling in how my affinity for Walt allows me to justify his deeply destructive behavior. Breaking Bad‘s power as a show rests in how it echoes the lesson of the great Russian author Solzhenitsyn. The line between good and evil lies not between men, or nations, but “cuts through the heart of every human soul.”
So why is the show’s perspective so alluring? Breaking Bad is built on taking characters, like Walt, and fragmenting their single moral acts (i.e. producing meth) into a multitude of angles (i.e. providing for his family, escaping the mundane, etc.). In this move, we build empathy and learn how context shatters the simplicity of black and white morality. A fragmenting that disturbs our confidence in calling things good, true, and beautiful. We find ourselves in the catch-22 paranoia of questioning whether something is good enough, truer than other things, and really beautiful. As Walt weaves deeper and deeper into the economy of methamphetamine, we are forced to stop seeking answers and wrestle with the questions of what makes a man good and what makes an act inexcusable.
If we are attentive to our experience of watching Breaking Bad, the show will give us a mirror that reflects our own tendency towards self-deception; the ways in which we live inside our own high school chemistry lab, equipped with a logic that leans heavily towards justification over justice.